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5 favorite pictures

I snapped this shot at the market in Jinotega. I’m not really sure what the woman was doing… laying down her vegetables for some reason. Still, I thought it was a beautiful picture of every-day life in the marketplace.

This picture was taken at the market in Managua. I thought it was interesting how light and dark make such beautiful pictures together. You can’t fully appreciate one without the other.

While most of the attention of our group was turned toward a conversation with the father of this kid, I glanced over and saw this “mother-son” moment happening in the background. This picture speaks to me, even now, of  the connection that all mother’s share in the desire to love and protect their children.

From the bell tower of the Roman Catholic church building in Jinotega I tried to capture the dynamic landscape of the valley. Even though I had to cut off part of the church building, I love how the colors turned out. The church tower overlooking the busy city streets and the mountains in the background paint a beautiful picture that I wish I could have captured better.

I like this picture because of the kindness and calmness reflected in this man’s eyes. Antonio is a seventy year old cabbage farmer. Read my previous blog post for his story.

Antonio

The dusty streets of the Jinotega marketplace were still bustling with the movements of third-world economy as the late-afternoon sun began to dip behind the western mountains. Peddlers, farmers, and craftsmen alike were all eagerly trying to sell as many of their wares as they could before the evening light faded into dusk and people began to return their homes. It was on one of these streets that we met Antonio, a cabbage farmer, standing in the shade of his makeshift kiosk. The shaky frame of the structure was composed of a dozen or so tree branches lashed together by what looked like some sort of twine. A torn and dirty black tarp served as a roof to protect his cabbages from the intensity of the Nicaraguan sun.  I seriously doubted the integrity of the small shelter (for it looked more like a shelter than a kiosk) and I wondered how large of a gust it would take to blow the whole thing over. Still, as we approached Antonio, I found myself already respecting him. He was a man who worked with what he had to do what he needed to do.

We struck up a conversation with Antonio, and as we talked, it became evident what was already apparent to us. Antonio was a very poor man. He told us about his family, about how they all lived together in one small house, in one small room. He told us about his life as farmer, that for seventy years he had been a worker of the fields. This came as a shock to all of us because Antonio did not appear to be anywhere near the age of seventy. If any of us had guessed, we would have said he was somewhere between 45 and 55 years old.

I immediately attributed this to the simplicity of his lifestyle. Surely this was the kind of life humanity was meant to live: a life of sweat and toil, a life of simple labor, working with our hands to till the earth from which we were born.  As I dwelled on this, I became caught up in the romantic, idealistic notions of simplicity. Images from previous readings of Thoreau and Emerson were again conjured up in my mind. But my silent musings were smashed to pieces when someone asked Antonio if he enjoyed living his life of simple labor. He calmly answered that no, of course he didn’t. As a matter of fact, his life was far from simple. Every day he struggled with the stress of providing for his family, toiling in the hot sun to harvest and sell whatever crops were not stolen from him by bad luck or harsh weather. Every day was a new struggle for survival, a struggle to provide the basic necessities his family needed to live.

Someone then asked him if he had any hope that things would change for him in the future. He responded by saying that maybe, somewhere inside of him there might be a small wish that things would somehow change for his family in the future. But he did not waste time on idle thoughts such as those. He could not afford to. The only thing Antonio could focus on was providing for his family day by day. In Antonio’s world, nothing was for sure. He could not rely on a government to provide welfare for him if he could get no work or his crops failed. He had no control over whether anyone needed to buy his cabbages or not. The only thing he could do was work as hard as he could to provide for his family.

It was at this point that Antonio told us that there was only one thing in his life in which he placed his hope for the future. Antonio was a Christian and he said that his hope was in Jesus. Though his crops may fail, though his family go hungry or their living conditions deteriorate, Antonio had hope, and that hope was in Jesus. Not only was Antonio a believer in Jesus, he was also a preacher of a small protestant congregation in the area. He made it clear to us that he did not rely on his congregation to provide any financial assistance to him. They were much too poor to spare anything, if they had anything to spare. Antonio was simply their shepherd and they his flock.

For some strange reason, as Antonio was speaking, my mind was replaying a video image in my head of Joel Osteen preaching on television. I saw his flashy suit and teeth preaching a message of personal economic success if one would simply put his trust in God. I saw a congregation of 50,000 Americans nodding their heads in simple agreement. “Yes, we’ll trust in God. He’ll give us financial success. He’ll make our dreams come true.” And then I heard a poor Nicaraguan cabbage farmer saying, “Yes, I trust in Jesus. He has saved me from a lifestyle of sin. My hope is in the salvation he provides. Nothing more, nothing less.”

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Antonio

look for it

(note: not edited. sorry for typos.)

Our pick-up truck lurched and grunted as we began to make our way up the steep mountainside. Already I could see piles of refuse lining both sides of the narrow dirt road leading up to the dump. There was no room in the valley/city for a landfill, so the Nicaraguans in Jinotega made one out of the top of a small mountain on the outskirts of the city. We were going there because we heard that there were people living and working there. We wanted to meet them.

As I stepped out of the car onto the flat mountaintop, I was momentarily  blinded by the overpowering brightness of the sunlight. I shaded my eyes with my hand to help them adjust while I looked around. It was a world of smoldering filth. For sixty or seventy yards to my left, right, and in front of me the ground was covered with trash. In front, where the mountaintop sloped downward, the sea of trash rolled over the side and continued down toward the bottom.   Much of the trash on the slope was on fire, permeating a wall of black smoke up into the air, the mountain wind whirling it up the mountainside and over the top into our faces. Vultures circled over head, dozens of them, landing and feasting on the carcasses of dead pets and farm animals whenever they liked. A banquet of death. This was the hellish scene at the Jinotega dump.

I turned to my right and began walking up a narrow path of trash and dirt. Initially I was just trying to get away from the smoke, but then I saw two people standing near the edge of a cliff about forty yards ahead of me and I began walking toward them. Several varieties of discarded material crunched or squished under my feet as I made my way. I passed by several people, men, women, and a few children  scrounging in some of the larger piles of trash, searching for scrap metal or glass bottles, anything they could make a coin off of.

The intensity of the sun at such an altitude was making this excursion a little more than uncomfortable. That, combined with the smell of burning refuse and the foul stench of the decaying food of the vultures, was compelling me to abandon this specific course of direction. But just as I was about to turn again and go another way, a blast of cool mountain wind came surging up and over the cliff ahead of me, annihilating the pungent odor and carrying the smoke away.

It was then, in the absence of the smoke, that I noticed the view before me. In the distance, past the two men whom I was approaching, lay the valley of Jinotega, mountains standing tall and strong on every side. I could only imagine what it must look like at the end of the day…the city bathing in the warm glow of the setting sun as the mountain tops gleam with a golden fire…

Captivated by the view and the rush of the cool breeze coming up from the valley, I barely noticed that I had already reached the two men. The sound of their work brought me gently out of my trance. They were shoveling coffee bean husks. Using small bowls, they scooped the husks into larger bowls which they eventually emptied into medium-sized burlap sacks. They worked in silence, the only sound being the soft scraping of the husks on their bowls. One of them was barefoot, the small husks covering his feet and working in between his toes. The breeze was lazy now, gently swirling in between and around the three of us, melding with the quiet rhythm of their labor. I suddenly felt like my presence was an intrusion. Like a sharp, disturbing note, stabbing out from the perfect, flowing harmony of a river of some very natural song.

Despite this feeling, I remained standing, watching. They glanced up, noticed  I was standing there, said “hola,” and went back to their quiet work. For a while, I tried to be as still as I could, like the rock in the river, becoming a part of the melody, letting it flow around me. Then my translator caught up with me and I wanted to speak.

Juan and Fransisco were poor laymen who lived in small houses on the outskirts of the city below. Each had families with multiple children. Multiple mouths to feed. They  had been hired by farmers in the rural areas of Jinotega to find the places where people dumped their coffee husks and harvest them. They worked from nine to seven every day in the harsh sunlight gathering the husks, which the farmers would then sell as fertilizer, profiting off of others’ trash.

Juan and Fransisco said that there were other places where they could gather husks, but they chose this place on the mountain because of the view and because of the cool breeze, which was a constant balm to their skin in the heat of the midday sun. From time to time they would pause and turn toward the horizon, letting the soft breeze touch their faces and move through them like a spirit, easing their minds, soothing their souls.Then they would return to their quiet rhythm. Their simple song of labor.

I was wrong about this place. Somehow, amidst all the trash, amidst the smoke and fire, amidst the carnivorous ravagings of the vultures, in the midst of that hellish, wreaking world, there was peace to be found. Serenity, the likes of which I had not yet experienced. A song that I had not yet been able to sing. But I think the song has always been there. In the hells of my life there is always a song. Like the background radiation of the universe, it just has to be found, has to be looked for. Juan and Fransisco found theirs. A song in the peace of the wind, in the strength of the mountains, in the quiet pride of a job well done. I just have to find mine, wherever it is. Whenever it is.

Juan

Jinotega

Note: I wrote a blog about my arrival in Jinotega, but apparently it was deleted somehow. Anyway, I’m here and I’ve already had so many experiences. This is one of them.

What is spirituality?

Judah is a seventeen year old Nicaraguan Christian living in Jinotega with his American-missionary parents. I was standing outside of a small cafe in the city when he saw me from across the street and began to approach me. When I made eye contact with him, I knew immediately that he had something he wanted to talk about. He shook my hand and introduced himself, speaking perfect English. Judah did not want to waste much time on formalities, so after I had also introduced myself and explained to him that I was with the Mision Para Cristo (thereby establishing myself as an American Christian), he immediately initiated a dialogue about our shared faith.

He began talking about the purpose of Christians. He quoted Matthew 22:37-39, saying that it was our purpose to love God above all else and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I agreed with him.

He then suffixed his last discourse with his belief that, as a Christian, he believes war is not good.

I agreed with him.

Judah had a purpose with this dialogue, it seemed, and so once he received no controversy from me on that issue, he quickly moved on. He wanted to here what I thought a relationship with God was supposed to look like, how it was fleshed out in every day life. I told him that I believe a relationship with God can be had through his son Jesus Christ and that the gift of his Holy Spirit inside of us allows us to grow in righteousness and be made holy through a process of sanctification.

What does that look like? For the Christian, it should look like he is trying with all of his heart, soul, mind, and body to love God, do his will, and love his neighbor as himself. Every situation will look different, and image of loving one’s neighbor will change depending on the context, but the definition will always remain the same: love is active, love is sacrifice. Being a Christian (having a relationship with God) doesn’t mean that we will always get this right in every situation, but it does mean that we have a helper—the Spirit—who is always working in us (if we let him) to move our hearts in the right direction. That’s the process of being made holy.

Judah agreed with me. But he wanted to add an observation of his. He felt that in many places, especially in his own country, religion had become a prison; that the laws and rules put forth by the leaders of the institutionalized church had made slaves of its adherents. The rules and laws were originally meant to aid people in the process of their own sanctification by ridding their lives of sinful things that hindered the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. But instead, the rules and laws became the focus instead of a relationship with God, the Father through the Holy Spirit.

I agreed with him.

Judah posed one last question. He wanted to know what I believed about how the Holy Spirit works through us to influence the physical world. In other words, perhaps loving my neighbor as myself meant healing him of his cancer. He believed that once we become Christians, then we have the opportunity to grow in the Spirit and let the Spirit become more powerful in us as the process of sanctification continues in our lives. Eventually, we should be able to heal people because of our great faith. I told him that I had heard claims of such healings from people I know and respect, but that because of the culture in which I was raised (scientific/modern worldview), I was immediately skeptical of such claims because I wanted proof of a supernatural influence. I expressed to Judah that it could be possible that overcoming this worldview and stepping into a realm of greater faith may be a part of my own personal journey of sanctification that I may need to embrace, but at this time I have not the faith to heal someone of cancer.

In response, Judah chuckled to himself a little and his demeanor relaxed. He explained to me that he too had doubts about the power and role of the Holy Spirit in his own life. He did not feel like he had the faith to heal someone either.

Something about this shared struggle seemed to satisfy whatever purpose Judah had in this seemingly random dialogue with a Christian whom he had never met before. He expressed his gratitude to me for the conversation and apologized that he must be going. We said goodbye and he left.

What is Spirituality?

At the bidding of the sunlight the rose does bloom.

We drink you in.

You give us life.

We don’t ever want to close.

Thanks Judah.

 

DSC_0056

I awoke to the sound of a palm tree branch gently tapping against the glass of my bedroom window. After a few more minutes of lazy dozing, I showered, dressed and stepped outside to greet the cool morning breeze. The clear skies, sunshine and vibrantly green tropical plants were a welcome change from the dull gray landscape and lingering cold of the Arkansas winter I had escaped. I reveled in the warm renewal of the morning for a moment more, then I grabbed my pack and went to join the rest of the group for breakfast in the outside dining area, leaving the confines my cold, air-conditioned hotel room behind for good. There are some moments in life that seem to be made of the stuff of eternity. In that moment, as I sat in the warm morning air laughing with friends and enjoying the sweet nectar of a freshly cut cantaloupe, time ceased to exist. Rarely in my life do I achieve moments of perfect contentment, but every now and then it happens. In retrospect, I have realized that all of these “moments made eternity” (if I may borrow from Sheldon Vanauken), have also been moments of perfect simplicity. A light breakfast with friends who make you forget about everything else, a cup of coffee on a porch as a storm wind blows through your mind, a head resting on your shoulder as you listen to the drumming of a heavy rain on your windshield, the rhythmic motion and cleansing, amnesic sweat of throwing a tennis ball against a wall in the young, summer heat. Each moment is different. And you’ve had your own. Even now you have it in your mind. But you’re only able to think of it in short bursts, like a sequence of short, three second films. You’re able to remember the moment as a whole, but not as the unbroken, timeless stream of seconds that it felt like. You can’t relive it, you can only remember it and how it felt. It was simplicity. And it felt like peace. It felt like joy. And it gives you hope. And it grows in you love. My first morning in Nicaragua.

Note: Most of this day was spent traveling from Managua to Jinotega where we will be doing our mission work. The following entries will be more mission oriented.

Buenos noches. 🙂

-Thomas